Comparison of how left arm pain from a heart attack feels vs. from a muscle problem…

“When people feel pain in their left arm, they are often worried that it could be a sign of a heart attack,” says Nichole M. Polin, MD, FACC, Director, Cardio-Oncology Clinic, Ochsner Health System.

“The pain can be more confusing if orthopedic issues are also present such as arthritis of the shoulder or neck or a rotator cuff injury,” continues Dr. Polin.

“Typically, if a person is having a heart attack, pain in the left arm would not be the only symptom.

“More often, this pain would also be associated with a pain or discomfort in the chest, excessive sweating, nausea, weakness or shortness of breath.

“Musculoskeletal pain is usually reproducible with motion and palpation [pressing on the area with your fingers] and would not be associated with the above symptoms.”

The feeling in the left arm from a heart attack is often described by patients as a “shooting pain.”

It’s sudden and intense, and may have a burning quality to it.

However, pain of a muscular origin would not be shooting or burning, nor would it suddenly streak down the arm while you’re at rest and not even using the arm – unless it is a muscle spasm.

And in that case, the spasm likely would be more focal rather than involving the entire arm.

A muscle spasm can be sudden and attention-getting, but it often lasts just seconds or less. A spasm may recur every few minutes and go on like this for a while.

Left arm pain from a heart attack would not behave this way.

A pinched nerve in the neck, too, can cause a sudden sharp pain in the arm, but there would also likely be tingling or numbness with it.

dr. polin
Dr. Polin is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, ABIM – cardiovascular disease, ABIM – interventional cardiology and certification board of nuclear cardiology.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


Top image: ©Lorra Garrick